Friday, September 30, 2011

Muse of the Week: Mail

I stumbled across this lovely paean to the dwindling art of the letter on NPR. While it can be very exciting to receive an email -- especially if it brings something more personally or professionally relevant than the latest Hanna Andersson sale or Ticketmaster spam -- the glow of excitement on the kid's face whenever her latest magazine or card from Great-Grammy comes in the mail is a helpful reminder that on some level there is no substitute for the tangible.

Historically speaking, I'm troubled by the decline in the fortunes of the US Postal Service because of the legacy it represents. Prior to the New Deal era of the 1930s, and certainly before the inauguration of Civil War pensions in the late 1800s, most Americans' only connection to the federal government came via their use of the postal service network. The office of Postmaster General was a Cabinet-level position into the twentieth century. Post offices played a significant role in knitting the various states and territories into a coherent whole, unified by common practice and networks of communication.

One could argue we have simply moved beyond a need for the postal service; that it has served its purpose and its day is now past. The quasi-privatization of the US Postal Service as a "business" of sorts rather than a true government service helps to legitimize this conclusion. If the USPS is just another business, one hobbled by extra regulations -- and failing, at that -- should it be propped up, or should it simply be allowed to fail, with private enterprise taking up the slack?

I believe the US Postal Service continues to serve two important functions. First, it allows us to preserve the civility of tangible, written communication. We might ship a relative's birthday present or an Etsy order via UPS, but what happens to the Christmas card, the thank-you note or the condolence card? Second, the demise of the USPS would sunder a bond that holds us together as a nation. Since the earliest days of the Republic, communication has been open to all for the price of a postage stamp. As well, we've been linked by common usage. In a fractured and fragmented country, the unifying power of an institution can take on an importance more significant than a purely financial bottom line. The USPS needs fixing, but I hope it will not be allowed to fail.

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